Meeting Essential Needs With Dignity – And A Few CoolBots

“CoolBot has been our favorite thing,” professes Robin Peacock, Executive Director at MEND. MEND, which stands for Meeting Essential Needs with Dignity, is a non-profit corporation that provides strength and support for its network of local food pantries in Essex County, NJ. MEND has been fighting hunger for both families and individuals since 1980 by providing supplemental fresh food, funds and volunteers to its twenty two pantries, which serve approximately 150,000 clients annually. 

Peacock has been working with MEND since 2018, when she began as their Grant Writer & Special Projects Consultant. “We’ve been convening with [food pantry] leaders and discussing their needs and how to collectively support them. Wanting to be able to provide more fresh food [to their clients] has always been a priority,” she tells us. Part of Peacock’s grant writing work involved seeking funding for said needs. In order to provide more fresh food, a centralized facility with refrigeration would be required. “So we wrote a competitive grant and were selected in January 2020 to receive $120,000 from the Impact 100 Essex Grant, which is a women’s giving circle.” 

So began the construction of MEND’s “fresh food hub.” “I used to joke that we really just need a big room full of refrigerators, and that’s literally what we’re building right now,” Peacock laughs. “Originally, we would’ve had a generous timeline to search for a physical space to take on the logistical burdens of offering fresh food to patrons, but — boom! — Covid hit. All of a sudden, we needed the space immediately.”

Fortunately, MEND was able to jump into action pretty quickly and acquire both the space and a CoolBot. “Both fresh food needs and all food needs were suddenly soaring. Increased fresh food access went from being a bonus to an essential part of operations overnight,” tells Peacock. MEND procured space in a 4,000 sq ft warehouse and dedicated its back room to their 8×12 ft CoolBot Walk-in Cooler. And they’ve got a second 8×8 ft CoolBot being delivered to them in the near future.

One of MEND’s volunteers who manages their Task Force Operations team, Rick Wessler, “did all the legwork,” according to Peacock. “He found the CoolBot online and put together a whole proposal. The cost savings alone to run the cooler off of the A/C unit was very appealing, especially for a nonprofit. Plus, it’s so user friendly. It’s been great so far.” Another urban garden that MEND partners with also uses a CoolBot, and they’d recommended someone to help them with the assembly process. MEND also utilizes volunteer assistance from a local construction company, who plans to help them put together their second CoolBot Walk-in Cooler once it arrives. 

Their second (on the way) CoolBot Walk-in Cooler is for MEND’s new program, MEND On The Move, which works with community partner organizations to provide food to clients/residents they identify who have food needs but can’t get to food pantries regularly (ie: homebound seniors, disabled veterans, health clinic patients, parents of young children who are home during virtual schooling, etc. MEND On The Move offers purchasing, packing and mobile food delivery services. 

Some of MEND’s fundraising also goes towards equipment for their foodpanties. And one of the pantries is lined up to get their very own 8×6 ft CoolBot. “So now we’re a three CoolBot customer,” says Peacock. “And hopefully we’ll have more to come!”

According to Peacock, the CoolBot has totally transformed MEND’s ability to support their food pantries. “I think some of it is about changing the food pantry model,” she explains. “For our pantries, it’s more about serving people with dignity. Instead of dented cans, expired food and cast offs, the pantries now have the power to request food that’s wanted, familiar and relevant. And it’s healthy!” CoolBot has allowed MEND to create “an environment to support all of their food access needs.” 

The model has shifted from the food pantries just taking whatever they’re given to being empowered to represent their communities in a way that effectively sources food that they want. MEND does a lot of partnering with local farms and urban gardens to leverage economies of scale and buy in bulk. Now, with CoolBot, MEND can order, purchase, store and distribute fresh food according to each pantry’s unique schedule. MEND also partners with Table to Table, a nonprofit that rescues food from restaurants, grocery stores, and food distributors.

“In terms of stats, we went from sourcing 25K pounds of fresh food in 2019 to 250K pounds of fresh food in 2020. That’s a 900% increase, just by having the space and refrigeration to manage it!”

Because MEND wants to ensure that the food they’re offering is high quality, they do a lot of bulk purchasing from food distributors to supplement their donations and purchases from local farms. “We buy highly requested items weekly,” Peacock says. Some more popular fresh food items that are in constant demand from clients are eggs and fresh milk, versus the shelf stable milk pantries generally have on hand. “We do some meats, especially closer to Thanksgiving when we have roasted chickens and turkeys. Ground turkey is really popular and a good, healthy source of protein. We also get a lot of requests for broccoli, onions and mangos.” 

“Oh and our CoolBot also comes in handy on hot days. We’ll just take turns standing in the CoolBot!” says Peacock. 

“Covid was the perfect storm,” Peacock explains. “It was a deduction in the supply chain for all types of food, plus a reduction of volunteers — many of whom are seniors. Then there was the increase in demand, so pantries were seeing 3-5x their typical numbers. And we lost our ability to just go to the local grocery store. Plus, there was nothing on the shelves at that point. A lot of our work during Covid was how to creatively source food and still use our volunteer base to support pantries. Most stayed open, while a couple temporarily closed. Twenty out of twenty two remained operational.” 

MEND distributed lots of rice during this time. They were able to buy it in bulk and then used volunteers to break it all down into one pound bags and drop them off to pantries. MEND utilized its “fresh food hub” for packing, bringing in only a couple masked volunteers at a time. During this time, they also did lots of fundraising in order to do more purchasing from bigger distributors. While things seem better currently, everyone’s admittedly a bit nervous to see how the next few months pan out with variants. In the meanwhile, everyone’s thrilled to have an abundance of produce available from the current harvest season. 

Are you located near Essex County, NJ and want to help out with MEND? Sign up to volunteer, donate or host a healthy food drive.

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